Friday, November 20, 2009

Four Observations About the Bad Parent "Movement"

I got a call this morning from a journalist asking about the "bad parent" trend, wherein folks like Bad Mother author Ayelet Waldman are proudly revealing their most secret parental failures. That got me to thinking about this topic, and I thought I'd share some random observations:

1) Fathers are pretty much defined as "bad parents," as the term is being popularly used. When we talk about proud "bad parents," most of the time we're really talking about "bad mothers" who are rebelling against the idea that they must be perfect to be good. Ayelet isn't actually a "bad mother," at least as revealed by her book and in her husband's new book, Manhood for Amateurs; Bad Mother is a reaction against the unrealistic, cognitively dissonant standards to which mothers are held. Meanwhile, fathers are not held, and do not hold themselves, to the same standards. When fathers reveal their foibles and failures as parents, they do it, by and large, with a laugh. They are allowed to be human, which, I think, adds more to the pile of evidence that guys remain a privileged class in America and the world.

2) That said, I think the "bad mother" thing is also evidence of the degree to which the genders are measurably converging in attitudes and behaviors. Wide disparities remain; it's just that differences are smaller than they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago. More women expect to have careers, and many do have them; more men expect to do more housework and childcare, and they are doing more at home. Fathers and mothers are both expected to play breadwinning and caregiving roles. That's a big change. When moms like Ayelet shake their fist at "good mother" standards, in many respects they're asking to be judged by a standard that's closer to the twenty-first-century "good father"--someone who is perhaps a slob and is perhaps not always the most empathic person in the world, who perhaps carves out space for a life apart from his family, but who is still a day-to-day presence in the lives of his children and fulfilling whatever role falls to him as parent.

3) That flexibility is key; in a time of profound gender role fragmentation, that's what both mothers and fathers have asked for--the ability to be themselves and to be judged by the circumstances of their lives--as opposed by the standards of fifty years ago or by the standards of people who imagine that their own private circumstances are universal. In a dense, connected, diverse world, tolerance and openness are necessities as well as virtues. And as I think Ayelet's work reveals, acceptance of one's own failures is a pathway to accepting other people's "failures," as we perceive them. Self-compassion leads to compassion for the people in our lives as well as a more generalized social compassion.

4) I won't personally be jumping on the "bad parent" bandwagon. I've rarely felt oppressed by the judgements of others about my fatherhood--but I have been confused about what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing as a father. For that reason, my book The Daddy Shift is not a bad parent book--it's about good fathers, and what ideals help them to be good. There are individually bad fathers, of course, just as there really are genuinely bad mothers, but fathers as a group are often judged as "bad parents" for not behaving like mothers. That's why we need a good father movement. Moms might indeed need a bad parent movement. But fathers need positive, aspirational images, and tools for negotiating roles that their fathers were never expected to adopt. And I think we need other people, particularly the women in our lives, to understand the kind of fathers we are trying to be.

Your thoughts?


chicago pop said...

Another incisive and very helpful consideration of the parenting media blizzard.

Chip said...

thumbs up! Good post, I think you're totally on target about different expectations by gender -- by others and by self.

Unknown said...

Many years ago when my kids were young, I had this thing I called the "bad dad" club. It was my own effort to get my male friends to come to terms with their own stupidity. The main issue for me was not so much their failures with respect to their kids, but to their wives. I tried to get them to understand that they needed to change their home behavior, do some cooking, take over the laundry, take the kids for significant time on the weekends, etc. I even started this thing where I gave my wife a week's vacation and arranged for her to go to Mexico or someplace while I took off work and spent it with the three kids.
I explained it like this: if you ever want to get laid again, the sexiest words you can say are "honey, I'll do the laundry this weekend."

Amie Klempnauer Miller said...

I found that stay-at-home dads were the people I could relate to most when I was trying to figure out my own role as a nonbiological lesbian mom. I certainly wasn't the typical Mother, but I was also a pretty far cry from a typical Dad. My sense was (and your book upholds this) that caregiving dads were somewhere in the middle, as am I. What's more, the dads were so much less anxious about whether they were living up to the Archetype (they weren't, so there), that it made them much more approachable, both as role models and as people. said...

Laura Bennet of Project Runway fame did a blog that touched on being a "Bad Parent". I took it and all "Bad Parent" type stuff as satire. A lot of it is pretty good.

I've trained as an Archaeologist and Anthropologist, (ie, unemployed) and I find the comment that starts section 2 confusing. Everything is changed at unprecedented rates. It would be amazing if what you are describing didn't happen. Your comment is like the ones that marvel that all cars look more and more alike. Well duh, they are all made by the same machines, in the same factories. Like all of our clothes, electronics, food, etc, etc. Aren't you saying that the genders are being rationalized for efficiency the same way the shape of cars are.

Another way of saying the same thing would be there is less and less that people actually do. Most of the workers I know stare intently at screens and quickly press little buttons. We have more and more cheaper and cheaper copies of the same stuff. Look at your wives clothes and your's, how much are really the same items. For a lot of clothes the only difference between men's and women's are the tags, and the price. I would argue that there isn't a convergence of attitudes, there is a real convergence of gender. There are simply fewer and fewer ways to be different. Gender is being swamped by larger social and economic forces.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Your perspective is interesting, rtb, but I don't think there's any question that today we are seeing more varieties of "man" and more varieties of "women" than ever before. Once in America, a very rigid uniform was imposed on both men and women: men in suits and hats, women in skirts and blouses, each adhering to two different standards--and woe to the person who didn't or couldn't conform to those standards. Today, that's simply not the case. I'm staring out my window at a San Francisco street as I type: I just saw two women walk by holding hands, one feminine, one quite butch. Another woman walks after them: she's got the whole bike messenger look going on, T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, jeans cut off at the knees, sneakers. And there goes my neighbor with his dogs, casually dressed and openly gay, and no one on my street would ever dream of telling him to go back into the closet. That's San Francisco; recently I was in Omaha, and I was struck by how relatively homogenous many men and women looked--but even there, I found diversity and tolerance.

That's anecdotal, but there's plenty of underlying empirical data that say there are many more ways of being a man and a woman than in the past. Take the emergence of stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms; look at women's participation in sports. Of course, we're being swamped with social and economic forces; we always are; that never goes away.

So I don't think that there are fewer ways to be different; I'd actually argue that gender convergence has resulted in an unprecedented degree of individualism, especially when it comes to gender (and race). Some argue that's a bad thing; personally, I think it's a two edged sword, but that there is no going back, so we'll just have to learn how to live with it.

Anonymous said...

sweet.................................................... said...

Thanks for the comments Jeremy. I appreciate them.

I don't assume that any lack of diversity is a bad thing. The US has always adopted a simplified social structure. The fewest possible number of divisions has always been preferred. This is a response to and criticism of the the elaborate social structures in Europe and Asia of the last few centuries.

I do wonder what "ever" means? Do you mean in the 6000 odd years of human civilization? In your memory? In American history? In the US geographically? Culturally? In the west culturally? In San Francisco? My training tends to lead me to think in terms of deeper time and across cultures.There are cultures with more than 2 genders. There are examples of 5 and more genders in some cultures. Eunuchs were often considered a separate gender. There are cultures where you can change genders. There are even some where an individual is required to change gender in certain circumstances. Then the individual's underlying biology is totally ignored. If there is a possible variation on how gender can be arranged you can assume it has been done.

You have posts about watching our kids getting lost in their own fingers and toes, we have to be careful not to do the same. I don't think the US in the early 21st century is any near as diverse as Alexandria in the 2nd century BC, or Imperial Rome or Even Constantinople in the 4th Century AD, or the great port cities of Asia. There are simply fewer cultures on Earth. If you mean we are more diverse then Ed Sullivan would allow on his TV show then you are completely correct.

Punup said...

It's interesting that one of your main themes regarding the stay at home dad population is that it is being fueled by the current financial crisis in which male workers have been so disproportionately affected. Now if the genders are "converging" as much as you contend, how is it that one gender is losing jobs at such a greater rate than the other gender? Isn't that completely at odds with your assertion? Actually the current situation seems to completely contradict your thesis. Men continue to work in the areas that have always been traditionally male: construction, heavy industry, technology, high finance, hence their heavier layoffs. Women continue to work in the areas that have always been traditionally female: health, education, clerical, hence their lower layoff numbers.

Ironically the recession has revealed how little gender norms have changed. Men work in factories and construction sites, as they always have, and women continue to work in offices and schools, as they always have.

Another area where there is no convergence of the genders, and in fact the opposite, is in education. Its constantly reiterated how women have surpassed men in college enrollment. That's not convergence, that's divergence. Convergence would be to have approximately the same percentage of each sex represented in college enrollment. When you have one sex disproportionately represented in college, how is that a convergence of the sexes? Isn't that instead a divergence of the sexes?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Hi Punup. Actually, the trends you're citing are part of my argument: once, men made up the vast, vast majority of college grads--the "divergence" was massive; today, the ratio is roughly similar; once, men's incomes dwarfed women's; today, women are catching up. As the numbers equalize, that's convergence--which comes mostly from women gaining ground, not men losing it. I'm not sure how much to read into the current recession, in terms of men's long-term employment; it may end up being a blip. The interesting thing about the recession, to me, is that unemployed fathers are now expected to step up at home--that wasn't true in the past.

There are indeed disparities in the kinds of work men and women do; that will continue into the near future, and the patterns will continue evolving.

rtb: I'm thinking in terms of the period in which social scientists have been collecting longitudinally comparable data. I agree that scope is limited, and, yeah, I do think America can be found wanting when measured against other cultures, in this and in other areas.